Opinion Extra

McInerney: A bullet hole downstairs, forgiveness upstairs: My pilgrimage to Mother Emanuel


The bullet hole in the brown paneling is barely visible. It is about the size of a nickel and can be found behind a tall, potted plant and just above a plastic light switch plate to the side of a door leading into the basement of Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston.

I was drawn to it on a Sunday morning. Drawn to the ragged edges of the wood where the hollow-core bullet entered. Drawn to the cool, spacious basement where the bathrooms are and where, on the evening of June 17, 21-year-old Dylann Roof opened fire with a .45-caliber handgun upon parishioners gathered there to study the Bible. Nine good souls were left dead in his wake.

I don’t know why I wanted to see the bullet hole. Or even why, if I had been alone, I would have pressed my fingers against it.

But I knew, driving home to Columbia after the 9:30 a.m. service at Mother Emanuel, that I would not forget the image. A simple, stark reminder of the conflicted and oft-incomprehensible world we live in.

But nor would I forget the part of my morning spent upstairs, in the handsome old sanctuary, filled to the brim with black and white worshipers, bursting with music, song, faith and forgiveness.

Leading the morning prayer and altar call was Sister Jean Ortiz. She was dressed in white, wearing a hat with a brim that framed her face like the petals of a flower bloom. She spoke to the congregation about being awake in the wee hours of the morning. “Four a.m.,” she said. Sitting on her porch, welcoming the rain coming in from a withered hurricane named Ericka, remembering how she used to be a little girl catching raindrops on her tongue.

She spoke about the need for forgiving a “young man” living in a jail cell in the Holy City. Or did she say “little boy”? I am not sure; my notes are not clear. It was then that I noticed the barest shade of pink paint near the ceiling. Like the inside of a seashell.

There was soft piano music, too. The notes accompanied Sister Ortiz’s words as gently as the woman sitting near me rocked her babe. He was melted into her ample shoulder, asleep, at peace inside this big, strong church.

Sister Ortiz suddenly raised her arms toward the rafters; her hands grasping the air above her.

“The power of forgiveness, the power of love,” she cried out, “Lord, you can’t beat them.”

Parishioners followed her example.

A sea of arms rose up, hands unfolded before me. “Amens” rolled through this place like one big wave after another. A high, powerful tide of human conviction. Not to be reckoned with by a stray bullet hole in the wood paneling above the switch plate in the basement, but to be carried away upon a fierce, frothy crest of faith that we will heal and we will endure.

Ms. McInerney is a Columbia writer whose novel, Journey Proud, is based on growing up in Columbia in the early 1960s; contact her at salley@hartcom.net.